Jerusalem/Gaza: Israelis welcomed on Wednesday a major prisoner swap that will free soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in captivity in return for the release of 1,000 Palestinians, but emotions were mixed over the lopsided exchange negotiated with Hamas.
"We are proving, for who knows how many times, that each of our soldiers is a world unto himself, and we will make a supreme effort to bring him home. The deal is a tough one, but it was the best possible to reach in these conditions," Home Front Security Minister Matan Vilnai told Israeli Radio.
He said the terms thrashed out since secret negotiations got serious about three months ago did not give the Islamist group Hamas, who hold Shalit, everything they asked for.
"We got the maximum we were able. And we are again proving that we will make supreme efforts to bring our soldiers home. It`s the case for every family living in Israel," Vilnai said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won overwhelming cabinet approval for the swap at a special night-time session. He had been under constant public pressure to bring Shalit home.
But some ministers opposed the agreement, warning it would encourage more hostage-taking by militant Palestinians.
Uzi Landau, Minister of National Infrastructure, was one of three in the 29-member cabinet who did not back the deal.
"The release of terrorists is a message that is simple: abductions pay off. Terror pays," he said. "Yesterday unfortunately, with the government decision, one of the things we took into account is that they will begin more vigorously plans for new abductions ... It`s a big victory for Hamas."
Hamas and its supporters in the Gaza Strip have threatened to abduct more Israeli soldiers until all 6,000 Palestinians are free from Israeli prisons.
"This deal lays the foundations for a new stage. The enemy`s acceptance of the conditions of the resistance did not come from a position of strength, it came from a position of weakness," wrote Deputy Culture Minister Mustafa Al-Sawaf in a Gaza newspaper.
Over 300 of the Palestinians to be released are serving life terms for violent attacks, according to Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal.
The deal resolves one of the most emotive and intractable issues between Israel and the Palestinians but has no obvious direct effect on peace negotiations which have been stalled for the past year, apart from potentially improving the climate for a resumption as urged by Washington and its allies.
The breakthrough pact was achieved after many false dawns in years of secret efforts to free Shalit.
The young soldier was grabbed by militants who tunneled into an Israeli army border position next to Gaza in June, 2006.
Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, subsequently shutting off the coastal enclave behind a heavily guarded security fence.
Shalit was 19 at the time and is now 25. The last sign of life received from the soldier was a videotape released by his captors in September 2009 showing him pleading for his life.
Deal Resolves Emotive Issue
Sawaf said the deal was a lesson to the Palestinian Authority of Hamas`s rival President Mahmoud Abbas and peace negotiators who "humiliate themselves before the enemy."
"We hope Abbas would learn this lesson and abandon illusions that will not achieve a state and will not establish a state. He should reconsider his position and return to the side of Palestinian people," Sawaf wrote.
"Resistance got what it wanted and Hamas fulfilled the promise it made," he asserted.
On the sidelines of the agreed swap, the United States said it was hopeful Israel and the Palestinians would hold a preliminary meeting to revive talks on October 23 in Jordan.
Prospects for peacemaking have been clouded by Abbas`s bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state and by Israeli settlement activity, which Abbas has said must stop if negotiations are to begin again.
A source involved in the talks said the pact had been mediated by Egypt. Its role is likely to strengthen Israel`s ties with Cairo, which have suffered since the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in a revolution this year.
Israel is to free 1,027 prisoners, including 27 women, in two stages. Within a week, 450 will be swapped simultaneously for Shalit and the rest will be freed two months later.
Yoram Cohen, head of Israel`s Shin Bet internal security service told reporters 110 of the prisoners to be released in the first stage would go home to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 131 would go to the Gaza Strip where they live. Six Israeli Arabs were also on the list.
Cohen said 203 prisoners from the West Bank would be exiled to the Gaza Strip or abroad. The move appeared to be an attempt by Israel to prevent Hamas from regrouping in the territory, controlled by Abbas`s Palestinian Authority.
Two of the most famous Palestinian militants serving time in Israeli prisons are not part of the swap, Cohen said. They are Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Abbas`s Fatah faction serving five life prison terms for murder, and Ahmed Saadat, found guilty of ordering the murder of Israel`s tourism minister in 2001.